Acceptance and Klee's Angel

A series of blog posts responding to writing prompts for an introductory seminar on Continental Philosophy at The Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc), instructor Jake Matatyaou, 2014

Writing in 1940, the forces of history between which Walter Benjamin would have felt himself were clearly of maximal scale. Fleeing his homeland into an unknown future, it is little surprise to find the self-image Benjamin inscribed into Paul Klee’s 1920 painting Angelus Novus as an entity somewhat destitute, adrift against the might of historical progression. Benjamin’s reading of the painting poignantly instantiates the philosopher himself into the position of the Angel, trapped irrevocably between an encroaching future and a swelling past. Encaged, this figurative self-installation of the author in the painting realizes the angel as a tragic figure, driven “irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows toward the sky” (Benjamin 392). Pushed forth by a force Benjamin ascribes to progress, this victim of time’s progression relies on the highly attuned fortitude of the author to be self-aware – that is to say, to be extremely cognizant of his own stance within a particular moment in history. To such an extent that he even chose to take his own life over acquiescing it to the Nazi regime, this seems to have been Benjamin’s disposition. Benjamin, and thus his Angelic cohort, were characters acutely aware of their surroundings. Theirs was a stance incredibly articulated as existing in the interstitial between past and future. While having no agency over this movement, Klee’s is an Angel who at the least acknowledges his position in the progression of time. He feels the visceral weight of the past, a wave growing in breadth and depth with each passing second as it casts its shadow over the present. Even as the Angel has no control over this dissipation within which he is implicitly confined, he was at least privy to its existence. Dejected from his homeland and on an unsure journey towards a future which ultimately held an untenable guarantee, Benjamin and the Angel found themselves without the foundational promise of time’s march forth. How are we to articulate ourselves within this conundrum? Trapped by a vigorously thirsty past, constantly consuming our present into the annals of its history, and an encroaching future, pressing a constant fringe of insecurity against the articulation of the present (though at times seeming completely determined by the past) in what position do we find ourselves? If Benjamin’s Angel expresses a distinctly victimized stance on the issue, somewhat foregone to the dichotomous forces of the past and future, is there no possibility that we can free ourselves from these fatalistic barriers which bookend our experience of every present moment?

Paul Klee, "Angelus Novus", 1920

One might first interrogate Klee’s Angel, and by doing so Benjamin himself, in questioning the ramifications of this position between past and future. What are the Angel’s intentions? That Benjamin annotates a history “citable at all moments” reveals the dilemma he posits in the Angel (Benjamin 390). Thus, this condition puts the Angel in a constant state of complication with its past. The will “to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed” is indicative of a consistent implication of uncertainty in the past (Benjamin 392). The past lies before the Angel in parts strewn about, but no promise is made of their ability to reassembly coherently. Here, Benjamin indicates that this presents an impossibility to resuscitate the past in its original form (Benjamin 391). The problematic reconstruction of these disparate elements of its past must burden the Angel, as, however concerned he may be, his will forever be a task less of neutral archeology than coherent fabrication. It appears important to note that the Angel does not merely fester in his inability to address only his personal past, but that he feels a duty to engage the dead. This infers not only his responsibility to account for the past of the individual to himself but of the entirety of the individual’s experience with his world and its multiplicitous agents of interaction. The individual, in many ways the product of these actions of the past, is thus indebted to reconstruct everything before him. He himself is the proof of their transpiration, because he stands here in flesh and blood having been produced by their variable interconnections, and yet from this mere fact he must work in reverse to rebuild, or rather to recompile in whichever way he might choose, the various ebbs and flows which allowed the conditions of his existence to occur. It is as if the very proof of a past and the essence of any verity in such a past have become decoupled. Between these doubtful materializations of time stands the Angelus Novus, faced forward before an ever growing accumulation of wavering facts. If it is indeed his job to compose them and make of it what he believes, as Benjamin expects of him, how is he to face the immensity of what precedes him? How is he, the mere individual, to account for the myriad of momentary circumstances and haphazard coincidences which shaped all that came before him?

We find a comparable illustration of this position man holds in relation to time from Hannah Arendt’s quoted observations by René Char on the state of France during its occupation by the Nazis. Withheld the guarantee of its normalcy, the erasure of what Arendt annotates as “masks… which society assigns to its members as well as those which the individual fabricates for himself in his psychological reactions against society” constitutes the estrangement of the individual from the banalities of his normative existence (Arendt 4). Without the constant promise of the healthy transaction between the past and the future, we find an interstitial space wherein man escapes the temporal imprisonment which befalls Klee’s Angel. Freed the predetermined burden in the predictability of his future at the hands of his past, man stands free to contemplate anew the necessity of how things might be. Rather than mere mandate by linear history, such conditions can be considered in their own worth free of any preordained set of prerogatives. The backdrop of clutter and rubble with which Benjamin depicts his Angel’s scene is brushed away, leaving in its wake a reality awaiting novel interpretation. While Arendt sees this as productive for the public dialogue among people, it could be inferred that such an emancipation from the imminence of time would function additionally on the level of the relationship between the singular individual and his very environment or society (Arendt 3). This stance Arendt further articulates as a position in which man escapes the entrapment for which we victimize Benjamin’s Angel. In what Arendt depicts as a kind of spatiotemporal parallelogram, this location situates man beyond the mere distinction of past and future, freed to gander across the expanse of his time. Nevertheless, Arendt’s remedy appears to be less than ideal in its necessitation of conflict, whereby it pits quotidian life against prospects of uncertainty in order to allow the latter to alleviate the staleness of the former. If the moment of escape from the crushing binary of past and future is contingent on an external incident (in the case of Ardent’s example, a war) capable of loosening the shackles of pedestrian existence, does this not leave the individual helplessly at the same position where he began? Does this not leave the Angel waiting ever longer for the past to regurgitate something extraordinary enough to complicate the transcription of the past into the future in such a way that he himself might be estranged from the entire process, as Char found himself under the occupation? This problematic instant of breakage leaves the possibility of such dramatic rupture from the timeline of history doubtful.

In articulating his positioning on this temporal cage in which man exists, that Benjamin holds his inclination towards Klee’s Angel seems to hint at least somewhat towards a desolation between past and future, a barren staleness between the two in which one becomes shackled. Helplessly woven between the two opposing movements of what has passed and what will come, it seems difficult to articulate Klee’s creation in terms other than those denoting a certain enslavement or determinism. However the Angel may gaze onto his past, and with however much will he desires so sincerely to return to it in order to gather and to organize the rubble which progress has left behind, he is forever unable. His is the role of an onlooker, both spectator and participant in the seemingly theatrical crafting of his present by which everything that was and all that will become are defined. Benjamin’s description clearly posits the tragic Angel as a creature primarily concerned with, yet dejected from, the past. That “his face is turned towards the past” and that his back is faced against the future demonstrates his grave concern for making accords with what was, though little ambition is shown towards the time to come (Benjamin 392). This storm of progress drives him ever forward however tightly he glances back. In this constant state of reversal, he is unable to address properly what nears him because he is too preoccupied with what Benjamin quite rightfully entitles “the dead”. Unsatisfied to let the dead lie, the Angel condemns himself by his own voluntary whim to a lifetime of retrospect and hindsight.

Upon survey of Benjamin’s other thesis on the concept of history, this consistent deference to the past solidifies. “The image of happiness we cherish is thoroughly colored by the time to which the course of our own existence has assigned us”, he laments, as if to amass a complete subordination to that which was and is gone (Benjamin 389). Although these thoughts evolve onward in the thesis to contemplate man’s possible agency with this interaction between the past and the present, they largely leave the Angel looking backwards. He may only hope for the moment of revelation at which he might finally counter the storm and turn his face, even if only momentarily, from the past. This is the state in which the Angel abandons us – the point at which he is no longer able to propel us productively. He awaits his awakening, at which instant he might be capable of reconsidering his history, but until then he remains fatally encroached on both fronts, forward and back, by time. At this moment, we might turn our attention towards what at first glance seems an unrelated reference in the form of a photograph by Ryan McGinley, staging a young woman, named Laura, nude in a desert before a thunderstorm. Hers is the countenance which answers the Angel’s beguiled stare. Neither tattered nor untouched by her surroundings, Laura’s is the moment of revelation alive before the viewer, whom her portrait inevitably absorbs into its relief from the temporal predicament once cursed upon the Angel.

Laura is free and yet distinctly aware of her past. She poses herself before the eponymous storm and yet looks with indifference towards the sunset. Rather than being pinned in a constant state of transitivity between the past and future, thrust helplessly every which way by the whims of forces beyond her control, Laura stands resiliently. To her left, the light of the future casts itself upon her and illuminates her way. She knows well that it awaits but worries little in forcing its encroachment. For the time being, she strides contently in frame. Whereas the Angel deflects our eyes backwards, we are stultified by Laura’s gaze. What does she see in the future? In this, she draws us into the frame, where we too encompass her moment of transgressive slippage, adhering no longer to the strict demarcations of what is past, present or future. Behind her, the approaching thunderstorm, in the past, casts ominously over the scene a blanket in the sky of peppered clouds, and yet as these approach the future to Laura’s left, they lose their articulation. It is as if Laura stands before the intricate and entangled mess that was the past, but rather than facing it helplessly as it pushes her forward, she accepts where she has found herself and, while indeed lit absently by the glow of what was, awaits the future. This is by no means pensive of what is to come, but rather deferential in its significance both towards its indebtedness to the past and the prospective possibility of the future. There Laura holds her ground, be-tween these cataclysmic forces, anchored on her sliver of horizon. It is this horizon that reminds us of our firm grounding in the present. Laura stands, presumably nude before each, and yet her countenance reveals neither fear nor elation. Far from becoming an irrevocably embroidered memento of everything she has been, slowly accumulating marks and scuffs form a thousand experiences past, to the ends that Laura becomes nothing more than simply her past, she treads forth nude. This bequeaths no state of indignity towards the past but instead annotates a certain nonchalance overall towards the situation. Laura has learnt to come to terms with what she faces. She appreciates the journey on which she finds herself and yet resists her complete enslavement to it.

This acceptance of reality is the instance of recovery the Angel will never attain. When at the end of her analysis of Kafka’s “He”, in which a man finds himself very much in the constrained position of the Angel, Hannah Arendt annotates Hegel’s concept of man’s reconciliation with reality as a task, the goal of which “is to understand what happened”, after the fact of which man will become “at peace with the world” (Arendt 8). This is where we find Laura not because of some meaning ascribed externally to her appearance in McGinley’s photograph but because she stands at once defiantly against the storm (the past) and precarious to the light of the future. While the Angel holds an air of reluctant defeat, his arms raised to the approaching past, Laura is somewhat more anonymous in her context, a mere hu-man in the face of worldly powers beyond her control. A light breeze from the future graces her forehead as she looks forward, while from behind the few dotted moments we are able to distinguish from the photographer’s masterfully concealed horizon (what appears to be a small convoy or settlement at the foot of the mountains) indicate a narrative to the work which is just slightly beyond our grasp to compile. Such is the past, thus requiring of us this certain reconciliation to accept that what has happened has come and gone. Perhaps, not all piles of rubble so loudly beacon us to return to them so that we might “make whole” their shattered remains. Ever still, if we carefully target our energies, we stand to gain greatly in our ability to accept where we stand and what brought us there.

Ryan McGinley, "Laura Thunderstorm", image courtesy Ryan McGinley

Describing McGinley’s work, writer Chris Kraus annotates the oeuvre’s mythological quality – a category within which Laura surely finds herself – as comprised of “Singular stories, personas, and things that appear to be emblematic, but only because they have paradoxically been abstracted from cause and effect; they appear to us as inevitable and eternal” (Kraus). This implicates Laura in a tumultuous position in regards to both space and time. Hers is a moment of the purely present, fully capable of holding frameworks for past and future and yet distinctly momentary and specific in its ephemerality. We find Laura before her thunderstorm, gazing into a forward distance, in a sight indescribable and inexplicable, however deep our questioning. It is neither marked wholly by its formative circumstances nor concerned with its ramifications to come, and thus it breaks poignantly from the linear binary onto which we typically ascribe past and future, cause and effect. Laura, like us, has found herself awoken in a chaotic and unobtainable world. For her, it is the graceful acceptance of this position which empowers her resilience against the overwhelming borders that took the Angel victim.

In both Arendt’s account of Char and Laura’s moment in the desert, it is the individual’s ability to acknowledge the progression of time, yet all the while withholding his- or herself from the ravages which keep Klee’s Angel perpetually preoccupied in the transaction between the two states, that allows the human to gain agency (or at least self-awareness) over his or her moment within the spectrum of time. Theirs is the journey of life in the present valued for the many moments it encompasses rather than the constant accumulation of the past or ominous shadow of the future.

Works Cited

Arendt, Hannah. Between Past and Future. New York: The Viking Press, 1961. Print.

Benjamin, Walter. On the Concept of History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002. Print.

Kraus, Chris. “Psuedo-Fiction, Myth and Contingency”. Ryan McGinley, Artist’s Website. Web. 6 December 2014.